UA presidential candidates discuss transparency, climate change, COVID-19, and CUP experiments in debate

Voting to close Saturday, results to be announced Sunday

The Tech hosted the Undergraduate Association (UA) presidential debate April 25. The recorded Zoom debate can be viewed on YouTube.

Fiona Chen ’21 and Danielle Geathers ’22 are this year’s candidates for UA president. Yara Komaiha ’21 and Yu Jing Chen ’22 are their vice-presidential running mates, respectively.

Luis Becerra Solis ’21 also ran a presidential ticket with vice-presidential candidate Karyn Nakamura ’23, but withdrew from the election prior to the debate.

Voting opened April 26 and will close May 2. Results will be announced May 3.

Fiona Chen is the UA Assistant Officer on Policy and co-chair of the Committee on Campus Climate and Policies on Discrimination and Misconduct. Komaiha has served as the Class of 2021 Secretary and McCormick Co-President, representing the dorm on Dormitory Council (DormCon) and UA Council. 

Geathers is the UA Officer of Diversity and chair of the UA Community and Diversity Committee. Yu Jing Chen has served on the First Generation and/or Low Income Institute Working Group and the Burton Conner transition team.

Some key points covered in the debate are detailed below.

Experience working with administration

Fiona Chen said that she and Komaiha have learned that students hold different opinions from administrators “very often” and that there are ways to “apply pressure” on administrators when conflict arises.

Komaiha’s work on DormCon meant that she has “come into conflict with administrators on issues surrounding mutual selection and meal plan prices,” Fiona Chen said. 

Fiona Chen said that during her time as an opinion editor for The Tech, she was able to publish influential articles. She highlighted an opinion piece about planned 2020 Commencement changes written by UA President Mahi Elango ’20 and UA Vice President Charlotte Minsky ’20 that led administrators to reverse the decision.

Fiona Chen outlined issues that hinder students’ communication with administrators: “there are very few clearly-established and well-utilized channels for communication”; “many administrators have things like open office hours, but students don’t know how to effectively leverage those channels”; and even when students do effectively use these channels, they “often are not listened to.”

Fiona Chen said the portions of her platform regarding “supporting student advocacy” and “transforming governance structures so that students actually have power” in decisions are meant to address these problems.

Geathers said that as UA Officer of Diversity, she has experience “one-on-one working with administrators” on issues such as presenting Black Students’ Union (BSU) recommendations and pushing to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In order to implement the naming change, Geathers said that she reached out to different departments and “work[ed] with administration” to ask departments to “change their individual calendars” because “a lot of calendars are decentralized.” Geathers said that she also spoke with Alyce Johnson, former interim Institute Community and Equity Officer, about renaming the day.

Yu Jing Chen worked with administrators to ensure that the process of moving out of BC was “transparent” and that BC’s community was “maybe given a space on campus so that everyone can stay united,” Geathers said.

Lack of administrative transparency

Geathers said that East Campus “had an idea of what security changes would be and admin has seemed to instill a policy that does not go with what they recommended” through a lack of transparency. “One thing that happens is that our communities are fragmented, so we don’t know when somebody else is suffering or when a group has been misled.”

Geathers said that the first step to better communication with administrators is to educate the undergraduate student body and then gain student power, “because when admin understand that lots of students are upset, then they go to change things.”

Fiona Chen said that she would take a “very public approach” by publishing articles in The Tech and sending out petitions and surveys with “clear data about what students’ opinions are” to “build a stronger coalition of students” to “stand in unity” against administrators’ decisions.

Additionally, Fiona Chen said that she would “use existing channels of communication” such as Chancellor Cindy Barnhart PhD ’88 and Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson’s office hours. She “hold UA office hours to help train students to go into those conversations.”

Finally, the UA “could leverage visiting committees” such as that of the Division of Student Life, Fiona Chen said. 

The issue is that these visiting committees “don’t get enough input from a broad range of student perspectives, but if we can change this process, we can use this as an additional avenue of creating change,” Fiona Chen said.

Komaiha was an “effective leader” involving issues surrounding mutual selection, Fiona Chen said. She “sat in her dining hall for four hours” so people could “come up to her and ask her questions and give her feedback.” 

Fiona Chen added that although McCormick did not have issues with mutual selection, Komaiha “stood in solidarity with other dorm presidents” and supported affected dorm residents throughout the process.

“Even if things don’t directly affect us, we need to stand… with the people who it does affect,” Fiona Chen said.

Geathers responded that Yu Jing Chen is on the BC Transition Team, dealing with “one of the biggest issues on campus right now.” She added that Yu Jing Chen was in a dorm that “does mutual selection, whereas McCormick doesn’t have that, so she was also really involved with the process.”

Geathers addressed Fiona Chen’s point about writing articles for The Tech by raising concerns how realistic it would be. “It’s very hard when you’re UA president and vice president to be pushing out these articles,” because they are “a big time commitment” on top of other duties, Geathers said.

“We need to make sure the UA is known to students.” Geathers said. A lot of people “don’t know what the UA is, they don’t know how we can help them, so they definitely won’t go to anyone’s office hours,” Geathers said.

Both candidates expressed concern over institutional memory and proposed increasing documentation on past conversations. Both candidates also said that having these records available to students is important.

Geathers added that creating a “UA Freshman Leadership Program” that connects first years with “older members of the UA would also help increase institutional memory.”

Communication with administration

Fiona Chen said that she would hold more public town halls like those held to address Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to MIT, which “allowed a lot of survivors of sexual assault to come forward with their stories and consequently MIT is now working to bring back its support group for survivors.”

Additionally, Fiona Chen said that it is important for administrators to have a better sense of what student lives are like “in a more daily setting” by encouraging more “informal conversations,” such as having dinner with students.

“I think that students do want that more direct communication with administrators” as “administrators are often very out of touch” with them, Fiona Chen said. “It’s very important to increase transparency in that regard.”

Geathers reiterated increasing student body awareness of what the UA is and increasing involvement by “lowering the barrier to entry of the UA.” Otherwise, “the UA will be out of touch and they will only be representing some student voices,” Geathers said.

Geathers also suggested “creating a precedent” so that in every working group, “students begin by stating their recommendations” to “frame everything in a student perspective.” Geathers said that this would encourage administrators to listen to students and implement their ideas.

Geathers said that the “UA can be a great mechanism to help lift up student voices,” especially for students who are uncomfortable with “directly approaching administrators.”

Geathers also drew attention to the “underused” feedback form on the UA website.

Climate change

Geathers said that MIT’s climate action plan is “not specific enough” and does not “hold MIT to anything that’s truly difficult to accomplish each year.” Geathers plans to “support” MIT DIVEST and “help them collaborate with” the UA Committee on Sustainability.

“Part of me and Yu Jing’s platform… is to restructure the UA to make sure committees are more policy-focused,” Geathers said. 

Geathers said that in terms of divestment, she is “interested in supporting student groups with whatever fundamental plans they have” by “giving UA the resources to help on that front.”

Fiona Chen said that although she and Komaiha believe that “divestment is a good decision,” it is a “controversial” topic.

“We would hold a vote in UA Council” regarding the UA’s stance toward “a lot of these climate issues,” Fiona Chen said. If the UA Council votes in support of divestment, then “we could take a more public and stronger stance about including divestment in the next climate action plan.”

Fiona Chen added that MIT’s current plan “makes it seem as if they’re cutting emissions more effectively than they actually are” because it does not count transportation emissions, such as “professors going to conferences” or “sending food to the dining halls.”

Geathers said that she would like to poll the students about climate action, but would prefer a “general forum” over UA Council because “that’s too small a number of people.”

Geathers added that she would like to have a “larger platform” to garner student voices because the UA in general “can be a little skewed in terms of representation,” mentioning how the UA president has the ability to send emails to all undergraduates at once for this purpose.

“I did not mean by my statement that we should not regard other students’ opinions at all,” Fiona Chen responded. “My concern is that students by now are extremely over-surveyed” by different offices and student groups on campus, so “we would want to be careful before bringing in students outside of the Council first.” 

Although UA Council would be a “first step,” she also plans to include “public forums et cetera if we feel like this is a more controversial decision and we need more conversation around it,” Fiona Chen said.

Geathers said that participating in Institute committees, getting involved with the Corporation Joint Advisory Committee, and bringing student perspectives directly to President L. Rafael Reif are all means to address MIT’s climate policy.

Additionally, Geathers said that “it’s easy to say that ‘oh, student groups can talk to me whenever,’ but it’s also important that you outreach to them and be active in including these voices.”

Fiona Chen said, however, that it may not be enough to directly talk to Reif, because “climate change is an issue in which MIT has very vested financial interest in terms of not doing enough.”

Instead, Fiona Chen said that for “really strong climate action,” she would “mobilize students” and “place pressure on administrators from a more grassroots coalition perspective.”

Potential COVID-19 fall term disruptions

Fiona Chen said that “mental health support would be extremely important” regarding “social isolation” and “grief associated with loss.”

“Our platform about equity and inclusion” is one in which “we really want to support the voices of” marginalized or low-income students who “may be having more difficult home situations” due to COVID-19, Fiona Chen said.

Geathers said that she would first want to “assess the problems students are facing.”

“I also know that mental health already has a support group” for COVID-19, which “to my understanding is full,” Geathers said. “They’re working on creating another one, so I’d also… support that and try to” publicize these resources.

Fiona Chen responded that although a support group may already exist, “there is always more we can do,” expanding support groups to address other issues such as difficult home situations or stress related to working from home.

Geathers reiterated Fiona Chen’s concern about declining response rates to student feedback forms. Geathers said that she could instead go to student “group leaders… to gauge how we incorporate student voices,” so “one-on-one connection would be the key to that.” 

Geathers later clarified that although “over-surveying is a risk,” she will continue to survey students to ensure “everybody’s voice is represented.” However, Geathers said that emailed surveys “will miss a lot of people, especially underrepresented minorities,” so she would instead go directly into communities and their meetings to get feedback.

Fiona Chen agreed with Geathers about going to group leaders for feedback.

Geathers said that most of her policies can be “accomplished remotely.”

“People are voting on the values of the candidate… anyone can have ideas but I think it’s important on the implementation,” Geathers said.

Geathers said that her prior experience doing “grassroots work” and values of “unity, equity, and authenticity” would “drive us and allow us to be there for the MIT community during this time.”

Fiona Chen emphasized that she is campaigning on “democratizing governance” and “equity,” which are “exactly” the “important issues” in regards to the impacts of COVID-19.

Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) academic experiments

Geathers said that although MIT looks at the results of academic experiments from a numerical perspective, “it’s also important to think about how these academic changes are affecting the holistic student experience.”

“I would definitely also encourage the CUP to talk with a lot of students to gauge” other effects “that we might not know about,” Geathers said. “Moving forward, this could be an effective permanent change for the Institute,” but “until we have that data, we don’t know.”

Geathers said that she plans “to create a Diversity Council” involving “stakeholders from different organizations” that will “look at academic policies to make sure that the Institute is inclusive for all.”

Fiona Chen said that the first-year experiment is “valuable” because “it’s been helpful in giving people the ability to explore different major options really early.”

However, advising and course evaluation systems can also be “significantly improved,” Fiona Chen said. “This is something that we would want to work with UA Education on a lot next year.”

Geathers agreed that advisors are currently “very hit-or-miss,” so she “would definitely want to look into changing that.”

Fiona Chen said that “every decision that’s being made needs to make sure that it uplifts the voices” of individuals who may have “more difficult experiences… by nature of their identities or other aspects of their background.”

Campaigning online

In addition to answering questions during the debate, both tickets had to transition their campaigning to an online format following COVID-19. Both campaigns mentioned the challenges of being unable to meet students and communities in-person.

Geathers wrote in an email to The Tech that despite this limitation, “we still focused an emphasis on garnering as much student input as we could, meeting with a range of student communities over Zoom.”

“Our main strategy has been utilizing social media and garnering visibility for students we don’t know in that way,” Geathers wrote. “We have also held campaign events, including chats about our vision and platform, inviting students to join in, ask questions, and share ideas.”

Similarly, Fiona Chen wrote in an email to The Tech that her campaign “adapted to this issue by trying to reach out to a broad range of student leaders who are connected with their own communities, and… leaning on them to help us get the word out.”

“We cannot continue reinforcing the status quo by placing limitations on what we believe to be feasible. We need leaders who are willing to think creatively and push the bounds of what is considered possible,” Fiona Chen wrote.

Additionally, she thanked Afeefah Khazi-Syed ’21 and Claire Hsu ’20 for providing her campaign with “invaluable graphic design, web design, and video editing help.”

Yu Jing Chen wrote in an email to The Tech that it is her and Geathers’ “mission” to “transform the UA” to a “reinvigorated” system that students “believe in again” and “finally feel… heard through.” “We are stronger together,” she wrote.

Editor’s Note: Fiona Chen was an opinion editor for The Tech. She no longer has authority over the content published in the newspaper.